Chanting in a deep rhythmic voice, an African-American Indian chief (yes, I said that right), who is adorned headdress-to-toe in powder-pink feathers, beads and sequins, leaps onto the Louis-Louis stage by the wide lazy Mississippi River. An eight-piece band with horns, saxophone, drums, guitars, fiddle, cello and tambourine echoes his primal call.
The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Band has me and the rest of the 800-strong audience in thrall, its culture as mysterious as it is hypnotic.
New Orleans French Quarter Festival
Not far away, the Pinettes, the world’s only all-female brass band, is jamming with “Rock the Boat, Don’t Tip the Boat Over”, while on another stage deep in the bowels of the French Quarter, everyone is swinging to the toe-tapping Cajun fiddle tunes of Amanda Shaw and Rockin Doopsie Jr.
A New Orleans virgin, I am here for the four-day, ten-stage French Quarter Festival, the largest free music festival in the South of the United States. It feels like a full-immersion baptism and I’m already a true believer.
Here in the Big Easy, people live to play music. Not just on stage but in churches, bars, parades, at funerals, and on street corners. They express their lives through music as colorfully and flamboyantly as possible. As one-time resident Tennessee Williams said, “New Orleans is the last frontier of bohemia.”
This is where jazz was born and spread north to Chicago and New York up the Mississippi River, the aorta of American music. This is where Louis Armstrong, Satchmo to the locals, developed his groove, where rhythm and blues evolved from the slave songs of the cotton fields, where zydeco accordion tunes emerged from a mishmash of Cajun and Creole culture, where hip hop mutated and where bounce makes Miley Cyrus’ twerking look like a tea dance.
Outsiders know about Mardi Gras and possibly the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but there is a gumbo of festivals throughout the year offering an intoxicating way to explore the city’s musical, cultural and culinary traditions. All three are inextricably entwined.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz New Orleans Community Radio Station
Seeking further insights, I talk to David Freedman, general manager of New Orleans’ WWOZ, the appropriately named Wonderful Wizard of Oz community radio station. With a cult following around the world, including Australia, WWOZ is a keeper of the New Orleans flame, doing more live music recordings than any other station in the United States and probably the world.
“There is no other music environment today like New Orleans,” he explains. “We have at least 5000 musicians playing in every manner and genre imaginable. Wrapped around this is a knowledgeable audience…both locals and regular visitors…which lives its music and supports its musicians. The only place I can liken it to is Vienna when Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms were composing and performing.”
I’m sure feeling a lot of fervor, (beer) froth and freeform fabulousness on the streets of the French Quarter. Big name locals, like Dr John, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, and Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, draw thousands while Preservation Hall packs in the faithful with their trad jazz classics. On the streets, an African American voodoo practitioner plays the sax next to a tie-dyed white dude on washboard. Two young women, one a Japanese violinist, the other a dreadlocked African American guitarist, belt out a rhythm and blues tune not far from a crusty old guy channelling Tom Waits and a trio based around the Kora, a long-necked African base harp.
There are solo horn blowers and fiddlers, singers and tap dancers, steel guitar and zither players, tarot card readers and poets perched in front of portable typewriters. And the audience is almost as awesome as the performers, from a bow-tie-bedecked penny-farthing cyclist and middle-aged women twirling neon-bright parasols to a handsome Nubian gang on their Harleys and revelers in Mardi Gras-bead chain-mail ensembles.
“This is not America, but the northernmost capital of the Caribbean,” laughs Freedman.
New Orleans History
In an effort to understand its cultural kaleidoscope, I learn that New Orleans did not become part of the United States until the early 1800s and English was only installed as the official language by the ‘barbarian’ Americans during the 1860s Civil War.
The city was founded by the French, taken over by the Spanish, and its rich African history comes from Senegalese slaves and the free people of color who fled what is now Haiti after its revolution. French-speaking Creole culture…blending black and white, Europe and Africa…was sophisticated and educated. The Cajuns, by comparison, moved into the nearby bayou all the way from Arcadia in Nova Scotia when the English kicked them out. Meanwhile, the slaves celebrated their musical heritage on Sundays at Congo Square where they were allowed to sing, dance, and drum. Those African traditions of call and response, syncopation and improvisation mixed with European melodic styles to create jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues.
New Orleans is, however, no melting pot, insists Freedman, but rather a pousse café, which is a famous New Orleans cocktail created by layering, not mixing, brightly colored liqueurs. “It’s a heady blend of intoxicating spirits that influence each other but retain their identity.”
New Orleans Bars
It’s an apt metaphor because New Orleans loves its booze. Nothing quenches a thirst better in this sultry clime than a local Abita beer or frozen Daiquiri. And, it is in the bars where you’ll find some of the city’s finest musicians entertaining.
Avoid the French Quarter’s touristy Bourbon Street, sprawled with drunken university students and near naked sorority girls from the ‘burbs of Indianapolis. Just a few blocks away on Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny is the throbbing heart of New Orleans’ music clubs. Here you’ll find d.b.a. with its all-cypress live music room and possibly the best selection of craft brews and single malt Scotch in the city. This is the place to hear local legend John Boutte, creator of the theme song for the excellent HBO series Treme set in the nearby African American neighborhood of the same name. Here is the city’s premier jazz club Snug Harbor, where you might catch Ellis Marsalis, scion of the famous Marsalis jazz family. And here also is the blue and gold Blue Nile, in the oldest building on Frenchmen Street, and the Spotted Cat, a popular jazz and blues hangout, among many more.
But don’t limit yourself to Downtown. Classic New Orleans rock and funk joint Tipitina’s, in the buzzy warehouse district, was created by local fans so that New Orleans rhythm and blues legend Professor Longhair had a regular place to perform. His “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” is the enduring Carnival sound track. Another intimate spot is Chickie Wah Wah on Canal Street, an excellent venue for a diverse top-quality musical roster. And you can’t miss Thursday zydeco night at Rock ‘n’ Bowl.
Where there is great music, classic New Orleans cuisine is never far away. Think gumbo and jambalaya, crab etouffee and beignets…each as marvellous a cultural melange as the city’s music scene.
On Mondays, for instance, at BJ’s Lounge in the bohemian Bywater neighborhood, Jimmy from King James and the Special Men band cooks up washday red beans and rice from scratch before his 50’s-style rock ‘n roll band takes to the stage. The atmosphere is electric, the crowd eclectic and there isn’t a better place to be at the quieter end of the week.
As French Quarter Fest winds down, I head to The Maple Leaf in the Carrollton neighborhood, the first bar to reopen after what locals call The Federal Flood, more commonly known as Hurricane Katrina. Outside at a picnic table, a guy is slicing slabs of pork which he throws into a gigantic pot of boiling water already spiced with cloves, coriander, cayenne, garlic, oregano and paprika. As he adds buckets of crawfish, potatoes and corn, he tells me, “Be ready for the drop at 10.”
Having no idea what to expect, I pay the $10 cover charge because I’m pumped to hear New Orleans blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington after missing his crowded-out show at the festival. At 10 o’clock on the dot, in comes the sidewalk chef who literally pours the crawfish boil from a garbage can straight onto newspaper-lined tables set head-to-toe down the middle of the shotgun-style narrow bar room. It’s a feeding frenzy for young and old, uptowners and downtowners, black and white, rich and poor. Wolfman, dressed immaculately in crimson and emerald, starts up on stage not a meter from where I am standing, seducing me with the blues.
It’s Sunday and it feels like there isn’t much separating the sacred and the everyday. This music, with its soulful overtones and infectious rhythms, speaks both of spiritual endurance and celebration.
Later that evening, my last in New Orleans, I am transfixed by the notes of a young blond-haired boy playing sax in a now-deserted street in the French Quarter, his dad by his side. I remember that David Freedman had said something like if you have “that New Orleans gene” you’ll be smitten for life.
I already am for, just like Louis Armstrong sings, “I know what it means to miss New Orleans…miss the moss-covered vines and tall sugar pines where mocking birds used to sing…”
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